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Why Do High Schools Still Have Terrible Dress Codes?

With the “modesty poncho,” schools still haven’t learned that gender-targeting dress codes are a bad look.

Photo: Fox 2 Detroit

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High schools still haven’t figured out an appropriate way to encourage students to dress appropriately. The latest example involves a “modesty poncho,” threatened to be passed out at prom at a Catholic high school in Dearborn, Michigan.

The bright pink garment was displayed at the high school, according to reports by Fox 2 Detroit, along with a note that read, “If your dress does not meet our formal dance dress requirements — no problem! We’ve got you covered — literally. This is our Modesty Poncho, which you’ll be given at the door. :)”

Following the (predictable) backlash, on Tuesday the school sent a letter to parents notifying them that the ponchos would not be passed out at prom and that “it was on display to proactively remind students of our dress code policies and eliminate any confusion prior to this special event.”

We’ve seen this before: High school fumbles an attempt to enforce its dress code; the story becomes national news. In 2015, Stephanie Hughes was sent home for wearing a shirt that exposed her collarbone. In 2017, Kelsey Anderson was kicked out of class after her teacher allegedly told her that “smaller busted women could get away with more than larger busted women” in front of the class. The same year, 15-year-old twins Deanna and Mya Cook faced suspension for wearing braided hair extensions.

It’s clear that traditional high school dress codes don’t just overwhelmingly target women and girls, but especially those of color, those who wear larger sizes, and those who are trans or gender-nonconforming. The reasoning behind them is also often inherently sexist: The onus is always on the girls to avoid distracting boys rather than expecting boys to avoid getting distracted. What’s more, the dress codes end up causing a much bigger distraction by targeting specific students — and, in these cases, drawing national attention to the school’s policies.

Dress codes have existed in schools for centuries, but part of the reason we hear so much more about them these days is because it’s a lot easier for instances of getting “dress-coded” (getting kicked out of class or being forced to change) to be made public. Instagrams, Facebook posts, and tweets have the power to travel not only around the entire school community but into local and national news outlets. (That’s what happened when a Pennsylvania student uploaded a photo of her school’s graduation dress code to Facebook, which included the phrase, “You can’t put 10 pounds of mud in a five-pound sack.”)

That publicity has made fighting dress codes more effective and more visible. When 17-year-old Lizzie Martinez was told to cover her nipples with Band-Aids because she didn’t wear a bra to school last month, her classmates organized a “bracott.” And back in September, a group of Burbank teens spoke up in a school board meeting to take issue with their school’s sexist, vague, and unequally enforced dress code.

Elizabeth Love, a Salt Lake City high school senior, was able to get her administration to approve a new dress code that simply required underwear and midriffs to be covered. She wrote about the experience for our sister site Vox, noting that the newer, relaxed dress code allowed girls the opportunity to dress for themselves without wondering whether their outfits would be “distracting” to boys, or whether they’d be judged for being too risqué by teachers and other parents.

Clearly, many schools still haven’t realized that gender-targeting dress codes aren a liability not just from a publicity perspective but also for their own learning environments. Until they do, we’ll only be seeing more stunts like the “modesty poncho” on our newsfeeds.